Google is on a mission to teach children how to be safe online. That is the message behind “Be Internet Awesome,” a so-called digital-citizenship education program that the technology giant developed for schools.
The lessons include a cartoon game branded with Google’s logo and blue, red, yellow and green color palette. The game is meant to help students from third grade through sixth guard against schemers, hackers and other bad actors.
Google plans to reach five million schoolchildren with the program this year and has teamed up with the National Parent Teacher Association to offer related workshops to parents.
Among other things, these critics argue, the company’s lessons give children the mistaken impression that the main threat they face online is from malicious hackers and bullies, glossing over the privacy concerns that arise when tech giants like Google itself collect users’ personal information and track their actions online.
As an analysis of Google’s curriculum published in Emerging Library & Information Perspectives, a graduate student journal at Western University in Ontario, put it, “‘Be Internet Awesome’ generally presents Google as impartial and trustworthy, which is especially problematic given that the target audience is impressionable youth.”
In a statement, Julianne Yi, who leads the Google program, said it had “proven useful to kids, teachers, and families around the world,” and was supported by, among others, the National P.T.A., the International Society for Technology in Education and the Family Online Safety Institute.
Of those groups, Google is a national sponsor of the National P.T.A., a financial supporter of the Family Online Safety Institute and a year-round mission sponsor of the International Society for Technology in Education, which promotes the use of technology in public schools.
Jim Accomando, the president of the National P.T.A., said that the organization “does not endorse any commercial product or service,” although companies that give money to the group may receive “promotional consideration.”
“Google is a great example of a partner that aligns with our goals, and they have deep tech knowledge that they bring to the table,” he said.
What Is the Program?
The cartoon game, Interland, offers an animated world “presented by Google.” In it, children navigate spammers and hackers in “Reality River” and consider who in their social network can see what they post online on “Mindful Mountain.”
The game, which comes with a lesson plan and classroom activities, is meant to teach children “the fundamentals of digital citizenship and safety so they can explore the online world with confidence,” according to Google’s site description. Once students learn skills like how to create strong passwords and not share information with strangers, the program encourages them to be “fearless” online explorers.
Kerry Gallagher, an assistant principal at St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, Mass., said Google’s program helped students learn concrete ways to be safer and kinder online.
“Rather than being a bystander, they feel as though they have the skills to intervene” when they observe other children being mean online, Ms. Gallagher said. She added that younger students also gained a “better sense for who they should share things with and who they shouldn’t, depending on what that content is.”
Ms. Gallagher also works as the kindergarten through 12th grade education director at ConnectSafely, a Silicon Valley nonprofit group that receives financing from Google. She said Google had paid for her air travel, lodging and meals to speak at events.
Educational Tool or Ad?
Google’s name appears on every screen of Interland and the program’s certificates, which also incorporate Google’s colors. The curriculum features cartoon robots that resemble the company’s Android robot icon.
To some observers, the game is essentially a big ad for Google.
David Monahan, campaign manager at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit advocacy group, likened the program to asking Budweiser to talk to parents and children about underage drinking.
“There is an increasing awareness of the fact that all these supposedly free platforms are not free and that all of us are being tracked and our information is really the commodity we’re paying,” Mr. Monahan said. “This seems like the wrong time to be pushing resources that tell kids to be brave and fearless on the internet without telling them to be cautious and without giving them the information they really need.”
This month, Kevin Hodgson, a public-school teacher in western Massachusetts, is teaching his sixth-grade class how to navigate the internet. Google materials are not part of the lesson plan.
Mr. Hodgson said the company’s program offered students some important information, and he specifically cited the tips on how to create stronger passwords. But he said Google was defining privacy too narrowly by focusing on what users share, while failing to teach children how companies constantly track users’ activities and amass their personal data to show them ads.
Mr. Hodgson said one practice he taught his students was how to change online default settings that are often preset to allow for maximum data collection by companies. He said he also taught students how to navigate online platforms that can feature negative user comments, like Google’s YouTube, which he knows they use even though they’re not supposed to. And he talks about privacy-preserving online tools, like the search engine DuckDuckGo, which does not track users around the web.
“We are helping them become more knowledgeable about what the digital landscape is like,” Mr. Hodgson said of his students, “so they can make choices about what they use and what they don’t use.”
Ms. Yi of Google said the company was aware that multiple efforts were needed to help children learn to navigate the digital world. In addition to “Be Internet Awesome,” she said, “we’ve also built products like Family Link, which lets parents supervise their kids’ Google accounts; have hosted online safety school assemblies for years; and will continue to develop new tools and resources for kids, parents and educators.”
A History of Corporate Influence in Classrooms
American corporate giants are no strangers to the country’s schools.
In the 1970s, General Motors circulated a free booklet in public schools that featured cartoon characters like Harry Hydrocarbon, who played down concerns about the health risks of industrial pollution and suggested that air pollution would soon not be a problem, according to a 1979 report, “Hucksters in the Classroom: A Review of Industry Propaganda in Schools.”
In the 1990s, Procter & Gamble promoted its own curriculum, “Decision: Earth,” in schools. Among other things, it instructed children that synthetic diapers were no more harmful for the environment than cloth diapers.
Around the same time, Campbell Soup sponsored a classroom kit called the “Prego Thickness Experiment.” According to a 1997 article in The New York Times, “Corporate Classrooms and Commercialism,” the kit was supposed to teach children the scientific method — by having them “prove” that Prego pasta sauce was thicker than rival Ragu.
Critics see a similar self-serving agenda with “Be Internet Awesome,” which presents malicious third parties as the primary online threat to children, while failing to teach them how to navigate corporate data-mining practices.
“The best solution would be for this kind of training to be undertaken by an organization less invested in how consumers conceive of privacy on the internet,” the authors of the journal article wrote. “At the very least, ‘Be Internet Awesome’ should have significantly less Google branding.”
Google’s Emphasis on Education
Tech companies have been competing for years to win over young students as lifelong customers. In the past few years, Google has dominated the competition for classroom influence in the United States, outpacing rivals like Apple and Microsoft in the number of children who use its apps and laptops in schools.
It has taken the lead partly by developing useful products specifically for teachers and students, rather than simply repurposing its consumer or business tools for school use. Millions of students now use Google Classroom, a classroom-management system that allows teachers to assign and correct lessons online.
But even teachers like Mr. Hodgson, who uses Google tools with his students, are leery of the company’s presence in schools.
“Maybe it has some good for the public if you use it in certain ways,” he said of the “Be Internet Awesome” program. But, he added, “it reinforces the footprint that Google already has and doesn’t want to lose.”